By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Police and FBI agents on Tuesday began what they called an excavation project at a central California state university campus in hopes of discovering the remains of a 19-year-old student who disappeared two decades ago.
Kristin Smart was last seen walking to her dormitory on the campus of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, 150 miles (240 km) northwest of Los Angeles, in 1996 after attending an off-campus party.
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson told a news conference at the site of the operation on Tuesday that authorities hoped it would turn up clues to Smart's fate but that it was only one of several areas being searched.
"We must manage our expectations," Parkinson said. "It's our hope and desire that this leads to some of the answers (to questions) that we've been asking the last 20 years, what happened to Kristin."
Sheriff's and Federal Bureau of Investigation officials declined to say what led them to conduct a new dig on the hillside, not far from a 50-foot (15-metre) concrete letter "P" marking the campus, that was searched at the time of Smart's disappearance.
But an FBI spokeswoman said the sheriff's department had developed "new information" that prompted them to request that the agency bring in from its Quantico, Virginia, headquarters three dogs trained in detecting decomposed human remains.
Some 25 FBI agents and more than two dozen sheriff's deputies were expected to take part in the excavation, using more sophisticated technology than was available 20 years ago.
According to the FBI, Smart was last seen alive around 2 a.m. on May 25, 1996, by a fellow student, Paul Flores, who told police following her disappearance that he parted company with her about a block from her dorm.
The San Luis Obispo Tribune newspaper reported that cadaver dogs homed in on Flores' dorm room during the investigation, specifically the mattress of his bed, and that he was questioned by police in June 1996 but not arrested or charged in connection with the case.
Smart's parents sued Flores and the university for wrongful death, but that lawsuit remains on hold because police records have been sealed during the criminal investigation, the paper said.
Delays in the investigation of Smart's disappearance prompted legislation in California requiring colleges and universities to share information about missing students more quickly with off-campus authorities.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Cooney)